What Story Does Your Feedback Tell?

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Stories are one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Few things are more effective at persuasion, better for promoting engagement, or more memorable than a good story. This is why politicians and advertisers speak in stories and why Fortune 500 companies pay big money for storytelling consultants to come train their workers. It is also why we teach stories, both how to write them and how to read them.

This power of story is well known to educators, and consequently we as teachers tend to do a lot of storytelling. We weave the content of our classes together into clear narratives, guide students in unpacking the stories around them, and help students to tell better stories about themselves.

The one area where we teachers often forget to be a storyteller though is in our feedback to student work and writing. Instead, when it comes to feedback, we often switch from storytellers to detached arbiters of right and wrong. We simply mark what is correct and incorrect and leave it up to the students to interpret the story from there.

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Why I Teach Shel Silverstein to High Schoolers (And What It Means for How We Choose Texts and Mentor Texts)

Three years ago I realized that my poetry unit needed help. While I gushed about the thoughtful symbolism of “Ozymandias” or the elegant simplicity of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” I looked out and found far too many worried or blank looks on the faces of my students–looks that spoke to them being lost, indifferent, or both.

So the next year I started my poetry unit with a request that students bring in poems that they love, thinking that these favorite poems would show my students that poetry wasn’t something foreign or beyond them; it was something they already knew and loved. But, as is so often the way in the classroom, things didn’t exactly go as I’d scripted.

What happened was that in two sections of 9th graders, nearly 30 of the 60 students brought in a poem by Shel Silverstein. Volumes of Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree populated my desks, and while I have my own fondness for Shel Silverstein, I was at first deeply annoyed by this. Bringing him in felt like a mockery of the class and the assignment. Obviously, “Peanut Butter Sandwich” has no place in a high school–or so it seemed to me at the time.

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